A Simple Argument against Berkeley

It is well known that Berkeley was content to rest his defense of Idealism on one argument; this is the so-called ‘master argument’. This argument roughly goes as follows. If objects are mind independent then it must be possible to think of an unthought of object; for what it means to be mind independent is to exist when no one is thinking about you. But this is not possible for as soon as you try you thereby think of that object and it therefore becomes a thought of object.  Poor Hylas makes this mistake when he tries to think of some tree in a forrest where no people are. It is clear that he was thinking of the tree.

The intuitive response to this is that we can think of objects somehow without specifying which particular object we have in mind. But we often do this. If I tell you that I met this guy at the DMV and he said that I needed x, y, and z before I could get my license. You then think of the guy I am talking about in a way that does not specify him in thought and so you are thinking of an unthought of object. If I were to ask you who you were thinking of you could only answer ‘some guy at the DMV’ or ‘whoever your talking about’.

Don’t these kinds of purely quantificational thoughts answer Berkeley’s argument?

50 thoughts on “A Simple Argument against Berkeley

  1. Hey Richard,

    I don’t know much about Berkeley’s idealism, but couldn’t Berkeley say about this case (when you tell him about something), that what he is thinking of is actually a product of his imagination? I imagine subjective idealist would say something like….after all, you might be lying to me or not (about that person that you met), but that fact won’t make any difference to my thoughts, so if it doesn’t make difference it has to be something in my mind.

    (How the argument itself could be possible in subjective-idealist speech, I don’t have a clue 🙂 )

  2. Berkeley, it think would deny that there are such things are purely quantificational thought but i think he has more resources than just the master argument to do so. it helps to keep his idealism and his particularism straight; the master argument is meant to establish his idealism, his arguments against abstract ideas (the one having to do with our only immediately perceiving qualities) is meant to establish his particularism. so the response might be that if we carefully attend to these supposed purely quantificational thoughts (the ‘some guy…’), we’d find in immediate perception is just a series of closely connected qualities, and it is these qualities insofar as they are immediately perceived which cannot exist apart from some mind.
    aside from all that there is something quite right about what you say, i’ve never been able to pin down berkeley’s insistence that ideas, whether bundles of qualities or not, have to be these detail-laden images

  3. Well, the ‘master argument’ interpretation of Berkeley is a bit dated, since it has been under fire in Berkeley scholarship for some time. But if we take it as correct, I don’t think the quantificational response is quite relevant. Berkeley doesn’t have a problem with thinking of things without directly specifying them — he allows that, above and beyond our ability to perceive ideas we have the ability to treat them as signs, so your case would be interpreted as a case in which we use ideas as signs for things, in this case things that we conclude must exist by analogical extrapolation from other experiences. But this is not ‘unthought of’ in a parallel to mind-independent matter; mind-independence doesn’t enter the picture at all, and for all that we can determine from the data it could be that everything in the scenario is mind-dependent (or a mind in the case of the guy). We can’t think of it as independent of any mind, because on the Berkeleian view everything we (directly) think of is dependent on our mind, and so the only things we can reasonably conclude to by analogical extrapolation (which, again, is what Berkeley would think operative here) are things like minds and the things we directly think of.

  4. Hi guys, thanks for the very nice comments!

    Brandon, I didn’t know that! The last time I seriously looked at the literature on Berkeley was 2002, so I am a bit out of date. Is the reason that it has come under fire because people don’t think that it poses a challenge to the direct realist (as opposed to a representationalist)? Or is it that people now think that Berkeley himself wasn’t really “content to let the whole issue” ride on this argument?

    So, both you and Good Bishop remind me of the distinction between Berkeley’s idealism and his particularism. So the point is that I was kind of assuming that the thought you have is something like ‘there is some person who Richard talked to at the DMV’, whose form is represented by ‘Ex (Px & T(R,x))’ where ‘P’ is ‘is a person’ and ‘R’ is Richard and ‘T’ is the two place predicate ‘psi talked to phi at the DMV’ (using ‘psi’ and ‘phi’ as meta-variables that can be replaced by constants or variables in the first-order panguage…) in other words, the usual stuff…So, Berkely would deny that there are thoughts that have this structure, as Good Bishop points out.

    As Brandon points out according to Berkeley the thought you would have would be a thought of some particular guy that you use to represent some guy or other. We use our picture-like thought of some particular guy as a sign for whoever I happen to be talking about that I met at the DMV.

    OK, so which of these two views is right? Berkeley argues that our experience shows us that particularism is right. When we introspect all we ever encounter are particular qualities not abstract ideas that lack those qualities…but, with Good Bishop, I am skeptical of this claim.

    Consider teh converstaion in the post.

    Me “I talked to this guy at the DMV and he said blah, blah, blah”

    Suppose now that I say something like “well that’s what I get for dealing with a blonde, they are all idiots!” (not very nice, I know!)

    If berkeley is right you could be suprised by this. You might think “Oh, I thought he would be a red head”. Or suppose I go on to tell you that he had a rather large nose would you think ‘that’s not how I pictured him’? I don’t think so. My experience suggests that I have the quantificational thought when people say stuff like that to me.


    I take it that thepoint of the master argument is to try to show that the very idea of mind-indepence is contradictory. AN unthought of object cannot be thought of so the idea of ‘matter’ as mind independent stuff is confused. So, the challenege is met if we are able to think of an unthought of object. I claim that you do this when I tell you that I talked to this guy at the DMV…sure I may be lying, but you still think of the guy as something that exists without thinking of him in a way thet nullifies mind independence.

  5. There are no doubt still defenders of it; after all it was fairly entrenched for quite a long time (since the mid-70s) and long-entrenched views take decades to die (if they do). I think one problem that people have had with it is that a ‘master argument’ is extraordinarily uncharacteristic of Berkeley’s philosophical style. One of the fascinating things about Berkeley is that he’s something of a Grand Master of argumentation: he tends not to let anything ride on a single line of thought — instead he usually puts multiple lines of thought into motion, all independent and all converging on the same conclusions. I once tried to diagram the argument against materialism in the Principles of Human Knowledge; I gave it up after a while as a bit too complicated, but as far as I had gotten, I had found a dozen independent arguments against materialism, any one of which on its own would sink it (if right, of course). That is Berkeley’s usual strategy of refutation: he establishes several lines of direct frontal assault while simultaneously putting forward several indirect attacks and giving reasons to support the contrary position. He doesn’t settle for single arguments; he’s a webweaver. So it’s a bit startling if we read him as suddenly putting all his eggs in one basket, however good he might think the basket.

    Related to this is the fact that, of course, Berkeley doesn’t rest his whole case on the ‘master argument’, however strongly he affirms it. Rather, the strength of his affirmation seems to pertain not to the role of the argument (which is only one of many) in Berkeley’s system but to the strength of the conclusion — that is, the conclusion is to the absolute impossibility of material existence, a very strong conclusion. This is why we have the odd language in PHK about how Berkeley will concede the argument if it can be genuinely shown that matter is even possible, even if there is no reason to believe it exists and there is no use in supposing it to do so. That’s an odd move, if you think about it, particularly for someone who argues as carefully as Berkeley does. What it arguably shows is not that Berkeley’s whole case rests on it, but that the conclusion of the ‘master argument’ makes all the rest of his case (that there is no direct reason to believe it and no benefit to supposing it) moot, because it is such a very strong conclusion (to impossibility, not merely to falsehood or theoretical uselessness). Also, on the Dialogues, the one other place it appears, there is no special emphasis put on the argument.

    On the guy at the DMV, I think you are overlooking the fact that Berkeley doesn’t require the ideas constituting the sign to be of any particular sort, and puts emphasis on our understanding the grammar of signs. I could have in mind, when thinking of the DMV guy, nothing more than the sound of the words, “DMV guy”; my familiarity with verbal language allows me to draw inferences on that alone. Of course, if I try to think of the DMV guy as such, I have to think of him as some sort of guy; but even here, since my image is not something I’ve sensed, I’m merely taking it as a sign of the DMV guy, and my familiarity with the signs of things I’ve imagined but not sensed (and have perhaps later found to have been imagined incorrectly) to avoid bad inferences.

    Thus, quantification is not an issue; quantification is a set of grammatical rules governing the use of signs, and Berkeley explicitly thinks our knowledge of the world consists in that sort of thing. But it’s not the right kind of thinking-about-something. An analogy: In a way, if I talk about the set of all sets, or square circles, or the like, I am thinking about the set of all sets, square circles, etc.; but in another sense, I’m not thinking about them at all because they’re impossibilities that cannot be properly, clearly, distinctly conceived under any possible conditions: we cannot identify what it would be for them to exist, we cannot frame conditions for their possibility, we certainly cannot genuinely imagine them or reason coherently about them on the supposition that they exist. Berkeley thinks matter is in exactly the same boat.

  6. Hi Brandon,

    So I have been thinking that maybe there are two issues here. One is whether or not my objection would convince someone who held Berkeley’s specific version of empiricism that we could think of matter. Maybe not. But you have to make some pretty specific claims in order to get the argument to work…and we don’t have reason to believe them. So, if one defines ‘thinking of’ on the model of direct aquantince then Berkeley’s argument is trivial…

  7. If by ‘trivial’ you mean it simply states the obvious, I’m not so sure it does; but Berkeley would no doubt agree with you, which is why he states it so strongly. But, of course, ‘trivial’ in the sense of ‘obvious’ is not the same as ‘trivial’ in the sense of ‘having no special bearing on the question’. It pretty clearly causes a problem for Hylas’s representationalism in the Dialogues, for instance; and if people can’t actually conceive or imagine matter, in the sense Berkeley means, this is a problem for materialism because it seems to suggest that the only grounds for thinking it a coherent position is our ability to use the word ‘matter’ (and the words with which we are defining it), with consistency. Most materialists are not going to concede that the only basis for saying their position is even coherent is that they can use the word ‘matter’. In other words, Berkeley with this argument is challenging materialists to show that they are doing more than using the word ‘matter’ over and over again — i.e., to show that they actually have a way of giving it the content Berkeley denies that it has.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “you have to make some pretty specific claims in order to get the argument to work…and we don’t have reason to believe them.” As far as I can see, there really isn’t anything specifically Berkeleian about the argument itself; one could well imagine Dennett saying much the same about qualia, or the like. If thinking about matter is at best the same sort of thinking in which we can think about even the set of all sets or square circles, if we have no deeper insight into what matter is than our ability to have quantificational thought, that is in itself a pretty significant problem for the materialist, regardless of one’s agreement with any of Berkeley’s substantive positions.

  8. Well, I dodn’t mean the stuff about quantificational thoughts to rebutt every argument that Berkeley has for idealism (I take your point about the ‘web of arguments’)…only the one that says that the very idea of mind-independent matter is inchoherent. So, I claim, we can think of an unthought of object. We are thinking of some object (some guy or other) but not thinking of it in such a way that we fall into Berkely’s trap…that is we do not have a specific thougth about a particular person, nor do we think of the guy at the DMV as dependent on sensation. Yet we are thinking of a particular guy in the sense that we are thinking about the person that the speaker has in mind, and they, presumably, do have a particular guy in mind…Nor did I mean to suggest that we have ‘no deeper insight’ into what matter is than our ability to have quantificational thoughts…again I meant to address only one specific argument.

    The example of the square circle is, I think, a bit different. When we have a thought about a square circle we have a thought with explicitly contradictory content (‘There is some object which is both a circle and a square’), but as I have been arguing having a thought about an unthought of object does not involves us in any explicit contradiction…we can think ‘there is some tree that I am not thinking about’ without contradition (that is, unless one accepts Berkeley’s over-restrictive use of ‘thinking of’…

  9. But it seems to me that used this way you are really just switching out objects: instead of thinking of unthought-of trees, you’re really just thinking of the words “There is some tree that I am not thinking about.” In this sense it is not unlike the question of thinking of a set of all sets, which is not explicitly contradictory (and indeed it took some subtlety and precision to show that it was contradictory at all). When thinking of the sentence “There is a set of all sets,” I am not thinking about the set of all sets, because there is no set of all sets to think about; I am thinking of a description that refers to nothing, not of the nonthing, the set of all sets, to which it refers (there is, of course, no nonthing to which it refers; it just doesn’t refer to anything at all). To return to your DMV example, I could be just thinking of the description and not the guy (in which case it isn’t problematic for Berkeley’s argument for the reason just given) or I’m actually thinking of the guy, even if not accurately, in which case the guy is not unthought of.

  10. Yeah Brandon, you are right, but that is my point about Berkeley’s over-restictive use of ‘thinking of’. So, if one takes a Kripkian line on this, and in particular his view about “reference borrowing”, then you are thinking about the guy that I met at the DMV, but you are thinking of him in a way that does make hime ‘thought of’ in Berkeley’s sense, and so in a way that is not problematic (though I, the speaker, prumably am)…this is different from the ‘set of all sets’ business, since, as you say, one can’t think of it in teh right way…

  11. I suppose I’m still not getting your argument. I don’t see that Berkeley is being over-restrictive here; after all, if we interpret ‘thinking of’ so broadly that it applies even to impossibilia, it’s not relevant whether we can ‘think of it’ or not. But if you interpret the DMV guy case in this broad sense, it becomes inconclusive (because there is nothing about the case that makes it at all different from the set of all sets case); if, on the other hand, you go further and identify features of the situation that rule out parallels to the set of all sets case, Berkeley’s notion of ‘thinking of’ allows for such things, and his challenge is precisely a challenge for people to identify such features for unrepresentable material extension. I don’t see that reference borrowing gets one out of the problem: when I am ‘reference borrowing’, intending to refer to what the speaker is referring to faces two obstacles: (1) the speaker might not be referring to anything; and (2) if I can’t say what would be required to correct a misapprehension, I can’t say whether I’m wildly off the mark or not in what I’m thinking. Berkeley’s challenge can be seen as playing off the fact (among other things) that on a very common view of material extension in his day, neither (1) nor (2) can be met. In fact, we have no way of doing any sort of checking or baptism in the first place; ‘matter’ can’t be a christening of anything because the thing it is alleged to name is the sort of thing that can never be identified in experience so as to name it. If it’s impossible for the reference to be fixed, it can’t be borrowed, and so all the reference borrowing in the world won’t get you ‘thinking about’ in the right sense.

  12. I’m sure it’s my fault Brandon!

    I don’t mean to be trying to argue that there is matter, just that Berkeley’s ‘master’ argument doesn’t show that there is anything conceptually confused about it. I can do that by showing that there is no logical absurdity in ‘thinking of an unthought of object’…So I agree with your (1) and (2) but I don’t see how they matter. The point of the reference borrowing stuff is tp show that I can think of an object without ‘calling it to mind’, which is precisely what Berkeley denies that we can do; whether or not there is matter or whether or not the speaker is mistaken is irrelevant….I’ll bet this doesn’t help much either (does it?)…but I am rushing out the door right now…I will try to give a more thourough account of what I have in mind (pun, sadly, intended 🙂 when I get back…

  13. I think I see now; I don’t think Berkeley does deny that we can think of an object without ‘calling it to mind’, but rather that we can do so in such a way as is relevant to its being possible. Thus the problem with quantificational and reference borrowing lines is that they really aren’t relevant to this, since they can’t distinguish possible from impossible (e.g., set of all sets). So it seems to be slightly different interpretations that are making the difference.

  14. Well, possibility keeps coming up:

    “It is but looking into your own thoughts, and so trying whether you can conceive it possible for a sound, or figure, or motion, or colour to exist without the mind or unperceived. This easy trial may perhaps make you see that what you contend for is a downright contradiction. Insomuch that I am content to put the whole upon this issue:- If you can but conceive it possible for one extended movable substance, or, in general, for any one idea, or anything like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause. And, as for all that compages of external bodies you contend for, I shall grant you its existence, though you cannot either give me any reason why you believe it exists, or assign any use to it when it is supposed to exist. I say, the bare possibility of your opinions being true shall pass for an argument that it is so.”

  15. Well, no, I think the possibility here is the possibility of the opinion being true, namely, of the existence of an idea or anything like it that is mind-independent. Berkeley’s challenge is to bring before the mind, so as to show it possible, a mind-independent thing; he thinks it is impossible to meet because everything we can find is mind-dependent (i.e., ideas). Thus the ‘thinking about’ here has to be a thinking-about that marks out something as genuinely possible; it’s not a challenge to show that you can possibly think about mind-independent substance but to show that you can think about it so that its existence has at least “bare possibility.” If I think about the set of all sets I’m not conceiving it to be possible, nor am I establishing the bare possibility of its existence; I’m simply thinking about some words. Thus this can’t be the thinking that Berkeley is talking about. It’s not an answering of Berkeley’s challenge to say, “Of course I can think about mind-independent matter; you see, I just did when I said ‘mind-independent matter’,” even though one might want to call that “thinking of something without calling it to mind and so thinking of it in a mind-dependent way”. You have to show that you can conceive mind-independent matter possible, that you can establish at least its bare possibility, or, in other words, that you can call it to mind.

  16. I don’t think that this is right. In the set of all sets case we can show that there is indeed a contradiction and so that we can’t really be thinking of the set of all sets (this is of course because of the infamous set of all sets that are not members of themselves, which is a member of itself just in case it isn’t a member of itself, and vice versa)…but in the matter case what we need to do is to show that there is indeed something like this going on. This is what Berkeley has taken himself to have shown is section 23 when he says “when we do our utmost to concieve the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas” and “To make out this [viz that objects could exist without the mind], it is necessary that you concieve them existing unconcieved or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy”. This argument is explicitly aimed at someone who is imagining a tree with no one around to see it, but the problem is that they have then concieved of some particular tree. How can we do that and yet at the same time not be concieving of some particular tree? Butthis is exactly what my quantificational thought + reference borrowing allows us to do…this is also a way of demonstrating, as you rightfully insist, that I can call matter to mind…it just has to be in this round-a-bout way…

  17. Well, I’m thinking at this point we might just keep posting comments that start “I don’t think that this is right.” I don’t think Berkeley has taken himself to have shown anything directly in section 23; rather he has challenged his opponents to perform a task, and he thinks it’s clear that the task involves a contradiction: it’s impossible to think about anything (in the relevant way) that is unthought. What he’s heading off in section 23 is the person who thinks there is an easy way to meet the challenge: just imagine a tree. But of course, it is impossible to imagine an unimagined tree. So that’s a no-go at the very start; it “is nothing to the purpose.” To meet the challenge you have to conceive — in the same sense indicated in 22, which was to conceive it possible, so as to establish the bare possibility of the materialist position. So the thinking or conceiving here must be something that distinguishes possibility from impossibility. To be sure, we can prove the contradiction involved in a set of all sets, but this simply proves that we can think in the indirect way you are suggesting about something that is contradictory; therefore this sort of thinking-about-X doesn’t distinguish possibility from impossibility. And Berkeley thinks its obvious that this sort of case is parallel to thinking about a contradiction (section 24): we can think about the words and use them grammatically, but they turn out to exhibit “Emptiness or Repugnancy”.

  18. This comment almost seems not worth interjecting in such an interesting discussion, but one of the obvious problems with the “Master Argument” as you have reconstructed it (in the way most people read it) is that it relies on an inference of the form “it is inconceivable that x, therefore it is impossible that x”. The validity of such inferences is suspect and notoriously difficult to explain.

  19. The conceivable-possible issue is an interesting one. I think there’s a good case that the actual inference is the other way: it is impossible that x, therefore it is inconceivable that x; thus Berkeley is challenging his critics to run a modus tollens. Since he’s confident he can run the ponens, he’s confident that they can’t do the tollens. But I think even so that what Berkeley means by ‘conceive’ here is the key to the argument, one way or another.

  20. Yeah I think you’re right, Brandon…I mean, wait…

    So let me see if I have your point. Tell me if this is right.

    So in the set case I think

    (S) There is some set which contains all sets

    In the tree case I think

    (T) There is some tree which I am not thinking of

    Your argument is that in both cases I can be said to be thinking about the thing in question, but in the case of S I am thinking about something impossible and this shows that a thought like T cannot establish the possibility of matter. IS this right?

    This would make sense of your response to Colin. We know that the set of all sets is impossible and that must mean that it is inconceivable (in the right way). But if so there is a problem, because as I said, and as you agreed, in the set case we can independently demonstrate the impossibility. But in the matter case the demonstration of impossibility is its inconceivability. What else shows its impossibility?

    Colin, thanks for the comment! I agree with your assesment of those kind of inferences and I do think Berkeley’s argument relies on it. But even so, it seems to me that if there is mind-independent matter we should be able to think about it.

  21. I think that’s right.

    I think the question about demonstration is a fair enough question, but I’m not sure it is a problem; after all, it’s not clear how necessary independent demonstration of impossibility is (although, obviously, it would generally be nice). In some cases, perhaps, our task is simply to clarify until the impossibility becomes obvious.

    But I think in any case that Berkeley has independent arguments (whether they constitute a demonstration obviously depends on a number of things, and is not something to which I’d commit!): In PHK 1-20 he gives what he considers an ‘a priori demonstration’, or, rather, a set of arguments that he diagnoses as having “sufficiently demonstrated a priori” against the existence of matter. Not all of these have direct bearing on impossibility rather than falsehood; but even those that don’t might be treated as supplementary reasons for thinking the notion coherent. But some of them clearly would be relevant; e.g., he argues that nothing perceived by the mind exists without the mind, that nothing without the mind is like an idea, and that we have no abstract or relative ideas capable of including something that is neither mind nor idea; I’m not sure whether that’s really exhaustive, but it’s a pretty decent attempt. He also mentions in PHK 21 a number of arguments ‘a posteriori’ about the errors, difficulties, impieties, and controversies, which he gets into in more detail later, that might be treated in the same way.

    But if we press Berkeley beyond that, I think he’s given an answer in PHK 79.

    As I said, it’s really a beautiful and well-constructed argument, a good example of Berkeley’s status as a Grand Master of it: in the course of the Principles, he argues that we have no reason to believe that matter exists, that there is no value in supposing that it exists, that we have no way of establishing its possibility, and that we have positive reason to think it impossible, and that’s just up to PHK 20. After that we get a causal argument that involves positive reasons for idealism itself as the alternative, a very long series of responses to objections (which includes a psychological diagnosis of why people believe in matter), and a series of discussions of the benefits that we get from rejecting materialism in favor of idealism. That’s what’s called covering all the bases!

  22. Those ‘a priori’ arguments, I thought, were just arguments that the thesis was false or unitelligable (at least this is what Jonathan Dancy says)…the only argument I see as to the impossibility of matter is the one under consideration, viz that it is inconcievable. Showing that it is incoherent is not quite the same thing.

  23. It would depend on what you were doing to show that it was incoherent (much the same with showing that something is false). But Berkeley mentions impossibility, repugnancy, absurdity, and contradiction several times before the passage in question : XVII, XV, VII, VI, V, IV, III. It’s clear, too, that Berkeley thinks both that the doctrine depends on abstract ideas and that he’s proven these impossible in the Introduction. Some of these might reasonably be interpreted as not arguments for the impossibility of materialism but as arguments for the impossibility of particular ways one might try to save materialism in the face of Berkeley’s objections; in which case the overall tendency of the entire argument has to be considered. (If P, Q, R are the only reasonable foundations for believing S, proving P, Q, and R impossible is a reasonable argument for the impossibility of S; so we need to consider not only where Berkeley rejects the doctrine itself as impossible, but his indirect assaults against the argument as well.) I don’t think it’s an easy thing to determine where Berkeley’s argument stands in this regard. I wouldn’t commit to his having demonstrated anything; but he does have independent arguments that can be seen as having bearing, i.e., if nothing else he has arguments that, if sound, show that the impossibility, and not just falsehood, of materialism is very plausible.

  24. It seems to me that Berkeley´s Master Argument simply confuses ideas with their TARGETS (which need not necessarily even exist). What Berkeley appears to be saying is this: “You can´t possibly think of a mind-independent item because if you are thinking of anything, then what you are thinking is a thought – and everyone agrees that ideas are mind-dependent items.” The reasoning is flawed because to think is not the same thing as to think ABOUT, or think OF. We think thoughts, but we often think about (or of) things that are not thoughts.

    Of course ideas are mind-dependent items, but the TARGET of an idea need not be another idea. Put another way, Berkeley is failing to distinguish between the idea-of-X and X itself. This is similar to confusing a rabbit with a picture of a rabbit. Of course a picture of a rabbit is a picture, but that does not lead me to believe that the rabbit itself must be a picture. Similarly, suppose I remember a particular tree which I believe that no one is currently perceiving. It´s true that I am conceiving of the idea-of-the-tree, and it´s also true that my idea-of-the-tree is a mind-dependent item. But my idea-of-the-tree is not the same thing as the tree. So Berkeley´s pointing out that my idea-of-the-tree is a mind-dependent item is simply irrelevant. What matters is whether he has a good reason for claiming that the target of the idea (in this case a particular tree) is ALSO mind-dependent; and I don´t think he does.

    As far as I can tell, then, the crux of the matter is that it´s necessary to distinguish between an idea and what an idea is about (or of). For example, it´s incorrect to define `mind-dependent item´as “an item that can´t exist unless it´s perceived, felt or thought ABOUT.” Instead, the definition should read “an item that can´t exist unless it´s perceived, felt or thought.”

    What I think are thoughts; and thoughts are mind-dependent items. But I often think ABOUT mind-independent items, such as trees. The fact that the idea of a tree is an idea no more makes the tree an idea than the fact that a picture of a rabbit is a picture makes the rabbit a picture.

    By the way, it´s absolutely necessary to make this distinction. For it´s clearly true that the idea of Santa Claus exits, and yet it´s just as clearly false that Santa Claus exists. Hence, put generally, the idea of X is not the same thing as X. What we think are thoughts, to be sure. But that does not mean that the only things we can think ABOUT are thoughts.

    All I ever think are thoughts.
    I never think trees. Indeed, trees aren´t the sorts of things that can be thought.
    The IDEA-OF-X is not the same thing as X; so X need not be an idea just because the IDEA-OF-X is an idea.

  25. I found this on the internet. It’s the same sort of response that I wrote above.

    2.2.1 The master argument?

    The argument seems intended to establish that we cannot actually conceive of mind-independent objects, that is, objects existing unperceived and unthought of. Why not? Simply because in order to conceive of any such things, we must ourselves be conceiving, i.e., thinking, of them. However, as Pitcher (1977, 113) nicely observes, such an argument seems to conflate the representation (what we conceive with) and the represented (what we conceive of—the content of our thought). Once we make this distinction, we realize that although we must have some conception or representation in order to conceive of something, and that representation is in some sense thought of, it does not follow (contra Berkeley) that what we conceive of must be a thought-of object. That is, when we imagine a tree standing alone in a forest, we (arguably) conceive of an unthought-of object, though of course we must employ a thought in order to accomplish this feat.[6] Thus (as many commentators have observed), this argument fails.

    Bertrand Russell says essentially the same thing. I believe that he says it an The Principles of Philosophy. I´ll attempt to look it up and let you know if I find it.

  26. The passage I was thinking of is in Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 4. Just google ‘Russell the problems of philosophy´and you can read the entire chapter if you like.

    Before taking up the general question of the nature of ideas, we must disentangle two entirely separate questions which arise concerning sense-data and physical objects. We saw that, for various reasons of detail, Berkeley was right in treating the sense-data which constitute our perception of the tree as more or less subjective, in the sense that they depend upon us as much as upon the tree, and would not exist if the tree were not being perceived. But this is an entirely different point from the one by which Berkeley seeks to prove that whatever can be immediately known must be in a mind. For this purpose argument of detail as to the dependence of sense-data upon us are useless. It is necessary to prove, generally, that by being known, things are shown to be mental. This is what Berkeley believes himself to have done. It is this question, and not our previous question as to the difference between sense-data and the physical object, that must now concern us.

    Taking the word ‘idea’ in Berkeley’s sense, there are two quite distinct things to be considered whenever an idea is before the mind. There is on the one hand the thing of which we are aware — say the colour of my table — and on the other hand the actual awareness itself, the mental act of apprehending the thing. The mental act is undoubtedly mental, but is there any reason to suppose that the thing apprehended is in any sense mental? Our previous arguments concerning the colour did not prove it to be mental; they only proved that its existence depends upon the relation of our sense organs to the physical object — in our case, the table. That is to say, they proved that a certain colour will exist, in a certain light, if a normal eye is placed at a certain point relatively to the table. They did not prove that the colour is in the mind of the percipient.

    Berkeley’s view, that obviously the colour must be in the mind, seems to depend for its plausibility upon confusing the thing apprehended with the act of apprehension. Either of these might be called an ‘idea’; probably either would have been called an idea by Berkeley. The act is undoubtedly in the mind; hence, when we are thinking of the act, we readily assent to the view that ideas must be in the mind. Then, forgetting that this was only true when ideas were taken as acts of apprehension, we transfer the proposition that ‘ideas are in the mind’ to ideas in the other sense, i.e. to the things apprehended by our acts of apprehension. Thus, by an unconscious equivocation, we arrive at the conclusion that whatever we can apprehend must be in our minds. This seems to be the true analysis of Berkeley’s argument, and the ultimate fallacy upon which it rests.

  27. Hi Richard,

    thanks for the comments!!! Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you, I have been really, really busy!

    Yeah I agree that this is a standard critisism of Berkeley. Many have thought that the distinction between mental representation and thing represented. But Berkeley is well aware of this distinction and he address it. In his terms this is the distinction between what we immediately percieve and what we mediately percieve. Hylas gives the same sort of theory that you do, namely a representational account of ideas. There are many problems, according to Berkeley, with this picture. One of them is that it follows automatically that we cannot ever hear, taste, touch, or see the material objects. Everything the mind has contact with is an idea. Secondly there is a problem with the claim that an idea of a cat resembles the actual cat (like in your examples the picture of the cat resembles the cat). He wants to know how an idea, something mental, is supoposed to resemble a cat, something non-mental. Since it is reasonable to think that only an idea can resemble an idea we must then conclude that the thing we apprehend, the tree itself, is an idea.

    So, I don’t think that Berkeley makes the mistake that you say he does. Rather we can see him as making the point that thinking that there is something more than the mental act and its mental representational content is a very strange idea. Both the materialist and the immaterialist agree on the phemoneal data, what is in dispute is if there is anything more than the phenomenal data. Berkeley’s argument is that it violates empiricist scruples to do so.

  28. Richard Brown,

    I’m disappointed with your response. Of course Berkeley rejects sophisticated representational realism and claims that nothing can be like an idea except another idea. He also argues [badly] that no material object [if there were any] could cause any sensation. But I thought that the purpose of this page was to explain what’s wrong with Berkeley’s Master Argument – which I think I did.

    As to your claim that “we cannot ever hear, taste, touch, or see [the] material objects”, it strikes me as confused. We mediately sense material objects, but we do not immediately sense them. But that’s hardly mysterious, since the only things that we can immediately sense are our sensations themselves. Your claim that “Everything the mind has contact with is an idea” strikes me as equally confused for precisely the same reason. In other words, it’s necessary to distinguish between mediate and immediate “contact”.

    As to your claim that “there is a problem with the claim that an idea of a cat resembles the actual cat”, I never claimed that there is such a resemblance! Sophisticated representational realism explicitly denies that sensations closely resemble the objects that cause them. That’s precisely Locke’s point when he explains the difference between primary qualities and secondary qualities.

    Also, why did you claim that “it is reasonable to think that only an idea can resemble an idea”??? I don’t think that that’s a reasonable belief! If it is reasonable, then what reasons support it??? Berkeley’s so-called Likeness Principle, isn’t argued for, it’s just an unreasoned prejudice – asserted without evidence.

    Lastly, I find your claim that “thinking that there is something more than the mental act and its mental representational content is a very strange idea” to be downright bizarre. Everyone who believes in material objects believes this! And virtually everyone does believe in material objects. Indeed, it would appear to be a quasi-instinctual belief which only a small handful of philosophers have ever been imaginative enough (or confused enough) to question. You remind me of the passage in Berkeley’s Principle of Human Knowledge where he say’s, in effect, “most people believe that houses and trees and rocks are material objects, and I find this very surprising”.

  29. Sorry to disappoint!

    Yeah, I was trying to develop an argument against the Master Argument (if there is one), but I don’t think that the one you present actually affects Berkeley’s position.

    The point about mediate and immediate perception is exactly the one that I was making. This distinction does not help to refute Berkeley’s position, as he carefully argues that we have no evidence that anything is mediately percieved.

    I never said that you said that the idea of a cat resembles the cat, my point was that Berkeley did not make the mistake that you attribute to him. Rather he does distinguish the idea from the content and then argues that the content is something mental and that there need be nothing more to it than that.

    Lastly, it just isn’t true that ordinary people believe in material objects (in the way that philosophers conceive of them). Ordinary people believe in the existence of the things that they see, hear, taste, and touch…and so does Berkeley! So it is the materialist who is committed to the strange philosophical beliefs, not the idealist!

  30. Surely the point is that most people believe in mind-independent physical objects. Whether philosophers have an esoteric understanding of material objects would seem to be irrelevant.

    Notice, also, that you said that “Ordinary people believe in the existence of the things that they see, hear, taste, and touch”. They do, of course, and so do I. But (unlike Berkeley) almost no one believes that the things that they see, hear, taste and touch are nothing more than immediate perceptions. Rather, the ordinary fellow believes (correctly I think) that we mediately see, hear, taste and touch things. The ordinary fellow does not use such terminology, and probably couldn’t explain the difference between mediate and immediate perception very clearly; but I don’t see that that makes much difference. The point is that people talk about their cars, and their houses and such and believe that they are mind-independent objects that we somehow sense.
    Ordinary people rarely talk about their own visual sensations unless they suspect that there’s something wrong with their vision. In short, I think it’s a mistake to say that Berkelian Idealism is commonsensical.

    In any case, what exactly do you take Berkeley’s Master Argument to be? I said what I think it is in my first post – and it seems evident to me that it involves the mistake that I wrote about.

    Also, object-permanance is a reason for believing in the differerence between mediate and immediate perception (or sensation). I mean, for God’s sake, Berkeley has to appeal to God in order to explain object permanance.

  31. “Surely the point is that most people believe in mind-independent physical objects.”

    Agreed. My point was that when you cash this out, Berkeley is in complete agreement. Berkeley’s Idealism only seems to be uncomonsensical because he denies the existence of physical pbjects, but by ‘physical objects’ Berkeley means what the philosophers mean when they say ‘substance’…belief in substance, in the sense that philosophers use it, is indeed a strange, uncommonsensical view.

    “In any case, what exactly do you take Berkeley’s Master Argument to be?”

    If objects are mind independent then it must be possible to think of an unthought of object; for what it means to be mind independent is to exist when no one is thinking about you. But this is not possible for as soon as you try you thereby think of that object and it therefore becomes a thought of object.

    That’s roughly how I put it in the post…Here is the way you put it

    Berkeley appears to be saying is this: “You can´t possibly think of a mind-independent item because if you are thinking of anything, then what you are thinking is a thought – and everyone agrees that ideas are mind-dependent items.”

    I think my way of putting it is better…the way you put it makes it a straw man, so no wonder it falls to your objection…

    “Also, object-permanance is a reason for believing in the differerence between mediate and immediate perception (or sensation). I mean, for God’s sake, Berkeley has to appeal to God in order to explain object permanance.”

    This isn’t a reason for or against materialism or idealism. It is an open question whether there is a God or not…in fact as you probably know, Berkeley thought that since idealism was true that was proof that God did in fact exist.

  32. I don’t understand why you think that your formulation of the Master Argument is superior to mine.

    If objects are mind independent then it must be possible to think of an unthought of object; for what it means to be mind independent is to exist when no one is thinking about you. But this is not possible for as soon as you try you thereby think of that object and it therefore becomes a thought of object.

    Why do you claim that if some object is mind-independent then it must be possible to think of an unthought of object? If that claim were true then mind-independent items could not exist unless thinkers existed – and thus they would end up being mind-dependent. (It’s cheating to define ‘mind-independent item’ in such a way that they can’t exist unless minds exist.)

    Why do you claim that what it means to be mind-independent is to exist when no one is thinking of you? Being thought of does not disqualify an item from being mind-independent. You seem to want to use the term to mean “not perceived, felt or thought (about!)”. However, being independent of x is not the same thing as not being x. For example, an argument’s having a false conclusion is independent of it’s being invalid. Nevertheless some arguments with false conclusions are invalid.

    MY DEFINITION: An item is mind-independent if and only if it would exist even if it weren’t perceived, felt or thought.

    I find your claim that my formulation of Berkeley’s Master Argument is a straw man awfully strange. How exactly am I distorting the argument and making it appear to be worse than it really is?

    From Section 23 of The Principles of Human Knowledge:

    But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, with nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may do so, there is no difficulty in it. But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you yourself perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose…

    Notice how goofy this part is: “framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees”. If that doesn’t count as confusing an idea with its target then what the heck does?

  33. Hi everyone! Don’t slam me–I’m TOTALLY new to philosophy and I am not understanding this stuff at all. I’m hoping you can break it down and help me out a little. I’m in an Intro to Philosophy class and we are studying Berkeley.

    I have a question that asks:

    Berkeley held that:
    a.) trees exist because we percieve them
    b.) there are no trees
    c.) both a and b
    d.) neither a or b

    At first I thought it was a. Now I’m thinking d? Actually, I’m just very confused. Does Berkeley mean that nothing exists without us thinking of ab object? Or, the object exists because God thinks of it? I just really need help. Anyone?

  34. Hi Scarlet.

    In short Berkeley thinks that nothing exists whithout being perceived. If there were no God then the tree would exist only because we perceive them, which would mean that the tree would not continuously exists (i.e. when no one is looking at it)…but with God in the picture He will always be perceiving the tree so it will exist whether you or I perceive it.

    Hope that helps!

  35. Hi Richard!

    Thank you SO much for clearing that up for me. That is the choice I ultimately went with, but your explanation helps out.

    Do you know any kind of books or website that can help with Philosophy? I’m so lost of this stuff. Any recommendations would be great.

    Thanks again!


    • No problem.

      I would reccomend John Chaffe’s book “The Philosopher’s Way”. That’s what i use in my intro class and students seem to like it. Also try “Elements of Philosophy” by Abel and Stumpf. Good luck!

  36. In your (Richard Brown’s) post of February 7, 2008 you proposed two kinds of thoughts about the guy at the DMV. One is of a relationship that allows the individual to be recognized and which allows us to conceptualize the possibilities, and the other is of a specific individual who represents a particular possibility for the guy at the DMV.

    Berkeley would have accepted both kinds of thoughts. What he would have denied is that you can have a thought of the second kind which incorporates all of the possibilities that are open in a thought of the first kind. He gives the example of the triangle. You can think of the properties that define a triangle (and which allow one to be recognized), and you can think of particular triangles. But you cannot think of a particular referent which is an abstract triangle.

    However, this is not the crux of his argument against matter. I think that his argument against matter is really to turn the tables on those who say that God cannot be proved to exist because all we can sense are objects, but God is (by hypothesis) not an object. Berkeley knew that objects were manifestations of God, and he realized that, in this view, you could eliminate the middle-man, the concept of “matter”, using the same argument that others had used against God.

    I think that Berkeley understood that he was accepting mind as existing even though it could not be perceived. This problem had been addressed by Augustine, with his “Si enim fallor, sum”. an argument that had essentially been revived by Descartes with his “Cogito ergo sum”. These kinds of arguments lead strongly to the idea that mind (the unperceived perceiver) exists, but not to the idea that matter exists.

  37. Hi again Shack,

    I think you misunderstand my argument. I am not saying that the second kind of thought is about an abstract man, so Berkeley’s argument against abstract ideas doesn’t apply. My point is that when I havethat thought I think about an unthought of object and so get around the Master arg…

  38. I apologize. I thought you had claimed that Berkeley would have denied that the second kind of thought existed. I think he would have agreed that such thoughts exist, but would have denied that they are thoughts about an unthought of object.

    Despite my false start, I do think that the crux of the issue has to do with the relationship between the concepts of “abstract” and “unthought”.

    You might draw a picture of the person in your mind, and say “When I think of the guy at the DMV, I think of this”, but the antecedent of “this” in that sentence is not the unthought of guy at the DMV, but rather the image. Furthermore, the referent of “the guy at the DMV” is also the image, together with any other such associated thoughts in your mental model. Essentially, your thought isn’t about the guy at the DMV, but is rather about symbols.

    Note that you might go to the DMV and find that it is closed that day, and thus there is no unthought of person at the DMV. This possibility shows that your thoughts are of themselves as symbols and are independent of whether that person at the DMV actually exists. Because the referent may or may not exist, the symbols are abstract–the connection to the non-symbolic referent has not actually been established.

    That is, thinking about a symbol is not the same thing as thinking about the referent of a symbol, and thinking about the symbolic “guy at the DMV” is not thinking about the guy at the DMV.

    Mathematically, what happens when we think rationally about reality is a kind of functional analysis. We map our perceptions to a model, manipulate the model, and then map the model back to our perceptions and look for correspondence. We do this so naturally that we tend not to realize that in the middle step we are thinking about the model and not about reality. The correspondence with reality (steps one and three) is always made with actual objects of our awareness. The middle step is symbol manipulation.

    In any case, I find it hard to accept that Berkeley would have been unaware that you can have the kind of thought you are describing, so I think that an analysis of Berkeley’s position has to deal with what he would have said about that kind of thought rather than assuming that he would have denied that such thoughts exist.

    Relating this to Berkeley’s arguments against the concept of matter, using the functional analysis analogy, I think Berkeley would have denied that statements about matter involve any meaningful step one and three–that is, there is never an object of awareness that is a referent of the term “matter”. At least, with the guy at the DMV you have the possibility of making such a correspondence because your concrete thoughts about the symbolic “guy at the DMV” could possibly correspond with perceptions. But the term “matter” corresponds to a substance that is not itself a perception, and thus we can have no concrete thoughts about matter. Concrete thoughts, to Berkeley, are always thoughts that potentially correspond to some perception.

    Where I think Berkeley’s argument runs aground is that “mind” and “matter” are really in the same position. That is, I think that the crux of the disagreement is not whether there is something unperceived that underlies perception (whether it be called “mind” or “matter”) but rather what the attributes of this unperceived reality might be. Why not just apply the label “matter” to the mind of God? When you do that, I think that Berkeley’s argument against matter also applies to the mind of God, and his argument for the mind of God parallels the usual arguments made for matter.

    The value of Berkeley’s argument is not that it disproves matter. The problem with Berkeley’s argument is that if you take it as a disproof of matter then it can also be used (as Hume did, in essence) to refute mind. What Berkeley disproved is not the existence of matter, but rather the existence of any conception of matter. And, in so far as Hume was disproving any conception of mind, his argument is sound. If we believe in mind it is not because we have any conception of mind.

    To me, the problem with belief in matter is not Berkeley’s argument, but rather the notion that the foundation of reality is an impersonal and divisible substance. In other words it is not about the existence of an underlying, unperceived reality (whether you call it “matter” or “mind” or “God”) but about the attributes of that reality.

  39. I’ve tried to follow the entire discussion. If we are to agree with Berkeley, does that mean we make up the material world? How can we do that? I mean, if reality is all mind-dependent, how is it possible to do that? I admit to being clumsy but nevertheless why is it I trip over the ottoman when I don’t pay attention to where I am walking? Seems like the ottoman has an existence without my input! I have always been puzzled by this.

  40. You surely are mistaken. “You then think of the guy I am talking about in a way that does not specify him in thought and so you are thinking of an unthought of object” as I don’t know him, I can only think of him with the informations I got, so I am not thinking of the person itself, but rather just about the informations your friend gave you.
    It’s that easy.

  41. Berkeley would respond by saying that when I thought i was considering a “guy [you were] talking about in a way that does not specify him in thought,” if I were to be more attentive to the content of my mental state in that moment, i would discover that i was actually only thinking of a particular person that I had met in the past. thus the object would be specified in the mind, AND it would be a thought of object in that moment.

  42. I know this is more than a decade late, but I think this post is missing the point of Berkeley’s Master Argument.

    Berkeley is not trying to prove that you cannot have thoughts which do not represent a real or specific thing. Berkeley’s whole deal was trying to show that we have no proof that ideas represent real or specific things exist *at all*, and because of that we have no proof that real or specific things in the material world *can even exist*.

    The Master Argument is actually a response to the empiricists of the time like Locke, who said “because we can observe things, we know they must be true”. Berkeley said “that’s a BS argument, because there’s no way for us to *not* observe something and check our work.” This is what is meant by the “master argument”, and in that sense it’s very difficult to disagree with.

    Berkeley’s argument was basically an 18th century version of the “brain-in-a-vat” problem, and even at the time he said it was obviously a little silly because no one should choose not to sit in a chair just because they doubt its existence. But even as silly and pointless as it is, it’s still a healthy reminder that we are a slave to our senses and our perspective. I highly recommend looking up the “beetle in a box” thought experiment.

Leave a Reply to Tanasije Gjorgoski Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s